March 29, 2011
How To

Email Optimization: Improve response with 5 insights from 10,000 tests

SUMMARY: Email tactics may shift over time, but the psychology of email remains. Email optimization goes beyond best practices and addresses the psychological reasons why some subscribers respond to marketing emails, while others delete them.

Find out which factors help your email marketing, which hurt it, and how you can focus your messages to improve results. This article is based on advice from Dr. Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director (CEO) of MECLABS.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter

Dr. Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director (CEO) at MECLABS, has overseen more than 10,000 optimization tests on landing pages and emails. More than one billion emails have been sent. (Full disclosure: MECLABS is the parent company of MarketingSherpa.)

Throughout, Dr. McGlaughlin and his colleagues have identified patterns in the results. They've used the patterns to develop methodologies for optimizing emails, based on the recipients' motivations rather than a set of best practices.

"We do not believe in optimizing emails," Dr. McGlaughlin says. "We optimize thought sequences."

We've pulled five insights from Dr. McGlaughlin's presentations on email optimization at the MarketingSherpa Email Marketing Summit 2011 and the MarketingExperiments Web clinic, "Crafting an Engaging Email Message." Read on to see how a few changes can improve your results.

Insight #1. Emails should sell clicks, not products

In most cases, the goal of a marketing email should not be to sell a product, register attendees or encourage downloads. Instead, its goal is to get a click. The email has to convince readers to click through to a custom landing page where the real selling takes place.

Too often, Dr. McGlaughlin says, marketers try to sell their products directly through email. The number of distractions in an email browser, and the limited design capabilities of the format make email ill-equipped for this role.

Signs that you are doing too much selling in your email include:

o Email says exactly what's on the landing page
o Email takes more than 30 seconds to read
o Email looks and feels like a Web page or a print ad
o Email has more than one central call-to-action

To the last point, Dr. McGlaughlin says that marketing email should have one goal and one central call-to-action.

"The more you multiply the options, the more you will slow down the conversion process. There is an inverse relationship between the number of options and the speed to decision. And the speed to decision has a lot to do with the conversion rate."

Insight #2.Improve internal and external relevance

"Relevance" is a buzzword that gets tossed around like a football. Depending on who you ask, it could have any number of definitions. However, nearly all marketers agree that improving the relevance of your email to each subscriber can improve results.

Dr. McGlaughlin defines relevance as "the compatibility of the email message to the recipient's motivations." An email's relevance can be based on two types of factors -- internal and external.

Internal factors are based on the motivations of the recipient, such as:

o Demographics
o Shopping habits/history
o Personal interests
o Level of engagement

Tactics for incorporating internal relevance include:

o Personal first-name greeting -- "Hello Janet,"
o Reference purchase history -- "Thank you for being a Silver account holder."

External factors are based on events surrounding recipient, such as:

o Seasonality
o News events
o Special discounts
o Limited time offers

Tactics for incorporating external relevance include:

o Incorporate seasonal events -- "Tax season is just around the corner,"
o Limited time offers -- "This offer will expire in three more days."

Insight #3.Provide valuable offers and incentives

When it comes to email marketing, there are positive factors that contribute to a message's performance and negative factors that detract from it. Relevance is a positive factor. Two others are the offer and the incentive.

- Offer -- the value you promise in exchange for a click

Remember that your emails sell clicks, not products. You are offering additional information in exchange for a click. You must make a good offer that provides obvious value.

For example, if you're trying to get readers to download a whitepaper, show part of the whitepaper in the email to pique their interest. This shows readers the value they could receive. Then, encourage them to click to download the full document. Your offer is that they can "download the whitepaper now" in exchange for their click.

If you're selling a product or service, look to the core reason why customers should make the purchase. If the product will save them money, say that. Tell them to "click to start saving money today." This offers the chance to save money in exchange for their click.

If you were to encourage them to "click to read more about [Product X]," you would be offering to make them work (by reading) in exchange for their click. They will decline your offer by deleting your message.

- Incentive -- an appealing element intended to incite the click

Your email should offer an incentive that adds value to your offer and helps outweigh friction and anxiety (discussed below). An incentive can be a discount, contest entry, a free download, or another motivating factor.

Subscribers' responses to incentives are not always logical, which is why it's important to test them. For example, one of Dr. McGlaughlin’s former email training students witnessed the following A/B test for incentives on an email landing page:

o Group A was offered entry into a drawing for one of 20 $25 gift cards if they purchased

o Group B was offered entry into a drawing for one of 10 $50 dollar gift cards if they purchased

Even though both incentives totaled $500 in value, Group B had 31.4% more conversions.

Insight #4. Minimize friction and anxiety

These two negative factors are present in every marketing email. They push readers toward ignoring or deleting a message instead of clicking through.

- Friction is the psychological resistance to elements in the email

Friction is caused by forcing subscribers to think or act. Longer copy takes longer to read and therefore increases friction. Using several calls-to-action (instead of one) increases friction by forcing subscribers to weigh several options.

Every email has friction (subscribers have to read and click on something), but it must be minimized. An email with too much friction will be deleted.

Common causes of "friction overload" in emails include:

o Multiple images that compete for attention
o Non-linear eye path in the layout
o Multiple calls-to-action from which to choose
o Long or confusing copy

Excessive friction is also generated by emails that do not follow the typical subscriber's thought process. For example, the call-to-action should not be presented until the subscriber understands why they've received the message and why they should respond to the offer. Otherwise, the email is calling them to act before they see a clear benefit.

- Anxiety is concern caused by something in an email

Your customers have a heightened sense of anxiety when going through their inboxes. They receive emails every day, some of which are malicious. You have to put them at ease and convince them that you are offering a good, safe deal.

"The best marketing emails do not look like magazine ads or read like sales copy," Dr. McGlaughlin says. According to him, the best emails instill trust and read like simple, personal letters. Emails should personally address recipients, quickly explain why they've been sent, and provide a relevant offer and incentive.

"One thing we miss about email is very obvious: It's mail. It's a message. It's communication," Dr. McGlaughlin says. "In most cases, it will produce much better for you if you stop treating it as just an ad."

o Leave no concern unanswered

If your customers are concerned with a price or quality issue, be sure to emphasize your warranty or money-back guarantee program(s). Go the extra mile to put their worries to rest.

"You should reduce friction as much as possible, but anxiety needs to be over-corrected," Dr. McGlaughlin says.

Insight #5. Test radically different emails

Email marketing is likely a safe bet for your team. Many companies tweak their emails and incrementally improve results over time. They test subject lines, images, copy, layouts and offers to gradually increase performance.

The trouble with this approach, Dr. McGlaughlin says, is that many marketing teams are building on poor foundations. Their programs are adequate, but they should test completely different designs in hopes of dramatically improving results.

"One problem we have in marketing is that adequacy is the enemy of excellence. In many cases, we're losing the most money by using campaigns that are working but are not working well enough," Dr. McGlaughlin says.

"What we don't understand is that, even though we think a campaign is successful, it can underperform."

Dr. Flint McGlaughlin will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming MarketingSherpa Optimization Summit 2011

Useful links related to this article

Web Clinic Replay: Crafting an engaging email message

MarketingSherpa Email Marketing Summit: 7 takeaways to improve results

Live Optimization with Dr. Flint McGlaughlin at Email Summit 2011

Email Subject Lines: Longer subject increases opens 8.2%

Email Marketing: How your peers create an effective email message

Landing Page Optimization: Identifying friction to increase conversion and win a Nobel Prize

Members Library -- Email Makeover: 7 email optimization tactics to boost revenue

Improve Your Marketing

Join our thousands of weekly case study readers.

Enter your email below to receive MarketingSherpa news, updates, and promotions:

Note: Already a subscriber? Want to add a subscription?
Click Here to Manage Subscriptions